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Organizations Cannot Be Held Liable Under the Torture Victim Protection Act

The Torture Victim Protection Act (“TVPA”) of 1991 (28 U.S.C. §1350) authorizes actions for wrongful death against an “individual” who commits acts of torture or extrajudicial killing under color of law. The TVPA allows claimants to bring international human rights violations within the civil jurisdiction of U.S. Courts.  While Congress recognizes that the TVPA creates a private cause of action with extraterritorial reach, it only does so in order to prevent torturers who come to the U.S. from seeking safe haven in the U.S.  In other words, if the victim finds the torturer in the U.S., there is a cause of action against the torturer under the TVPA.

The central question that the United States Supreme Court was asked to address recently was whether the term “individual” in the statute is limited to “natural person” or “human being” or does it also include “organizations.”  In Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, 132 S. Ct. 1702 (U.S. 2012), the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the TVPA uses “individual” to mean natural person only, and not organizations.  Thus, the Palestinian Authority, as a non-governmental organization, cannot be sued under the TVPA.

Azzam Rahim, a U.S citizen, was visiting the West Bank when he was arrested by Intelligence officers of the Palestinian Authority, a non-governmental entity.  The security agents of the Palestinian Authority allegedly kidnapped, tortured, and killed Mr. Rahim.  The security agents then returned Mr. Rahim’s body two days after the alleged kidnapping.  His son, Asid Mohamad, sued the Palestinian Authority seeking damages under the TVPA.  The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case, ruling that the TVPA restricted liability to natural persons when referring to “individuals.”  The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Plaintiff petitioned the United Supreme Court to hear the case, which granted certiorari.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Congress intended to hold foreign states and their entities liable under the TVPA when it used the word “individual.”  Rather, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that Congress used the word “person” elsewhere in the statute when it intended to provide for broader application of the TVPA.  For instance, Congress used the word “person” in the organizational sense to include organizations and corporations-when describing the class of potential plaintiffs under the TVPA.  The U.S. Supreme Court noted that by switching to “individual” in the same statute, this signifies that the word has a different meaning -- namely that “individual” does not include organizations or corporations, but rather is limited to mean “natural persons.”

As a result of this ruling, there will likely be fewer cases brought in the U.S. seeking to impose liability under the TVPA since the act is limited to natural persons and only those over which the U.S. courts have jurisdiction.

 For further information, please contact:  Nicholas P. Connon, Managing Partner and Chair of the Middle East Practice Group; Tel:  +1.626.638.1757; e-mail:

Copyright © 2014 Connon Wood LLP •

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only.

Nothing in this article can or should be regarded as legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.